India Now: An Anecdotal Account (Part 4)

So, I lied . . . This post is, in fact, the final installment of India Now and will conclude the four part narrative of my trip to India:

One of the neighbors in my grandmother’s gated community in Andheri East has a driver.  The driver, a member of India’s server class, is impoverished like most of the people in his position.  Unlike many of the servants in the community, this driver has a reputation for being reliable.  Neighbors frequently complain about other servants stealing from their households and talking maliciously about them behind turned backs.  Not this driver.  He has received muted praise from the community for the loyalty he shows his employer.  The employer, however, offers few compliments, believing that too much appreciation can create unnecessary complacency.

The employer-servant relationship continued for years in a fairly professional manner.  One night the driver chauffeured his employer and his wife to a social function.  Instructed to wait outside in the night heat until the party let out, the driver was surprised to see his employer’s wife step out to the car a bit early.  She considerately greeted him with a cup of water.  She also insisted the driver try some dessert.  The driver declined, not wanting to overstep professional boundaries.  She would not hear it and returned with a bowl of sweets anyway.  Her husband followed shortly behind.  When he arrived to see the driver enjoying some of the party’s spoils, he was outraged at the driver’s apparent trespass on the social affair.  After berating the driver, the employer felt he had no choice but to punish his servant’s indiscretion with a beating.

Neighbors familiar with this story quietly approved of the employer’s actions.  They reasoned, the man could not let his driver think such unprofessionalism would be tolerated.  After the incident, the driver continued with his post as loyally as before.  The employer and his neighbors felt vindicated in their beliefs—beating servants was the only way to guarantee obedience, much like a dog.

The caste system might have been abolished in India but the poor are still often treated like second-class citizens.  Slumdog’s chai-wala aside the impoverished lead rather despondent lives.  Yes, stories of rags to riches do exist, but compared to the lower socioeconomic strata of the United States who find themselves in project housing or trailers with indoor plumbing, the jhoper patti dwelling poor of India have it really bad.  Worse, no one seems to care.  When poverty permeates a place so deeply, desensitization is almost inevitable.  Unfortunately, dehumanization accompanies the desensitization.

During our hike up to Vaishno Devi Sherpa-like guides called pitus carried our bags up the mountain.  As natives of the region, they were very well conditioned to lugging heavy cargo up and down the mountain on a daily basis.  While my brother and I found it a bit awkward to have these thin, older men carry the bags of two guys in the physical prime of their lives, we went with the flow.  We figured they would be compensated for their efforts.  When we reached the top and settled into our hotel room, we were dismayed to discover that the pitus were not permitted shelter with us.  They spent the blustery night on the streets curled up in shawls.  By the end of the trip they had garnered so much goodwill in Rajeev’s and my eyes that we decided to leave them a generous tip, but we were discouraged by our relatives.  There was a norm to tipping that we apparently didn’t understand.  We were only to offer a nominal amount to express our gratitude.  I wound up having to take Rajeev’s share along with mine and clandestinely slip it to the pitus.

The glaring visuals of disfigured beggars roaming the roadsides often overshadow the struggles of the servant class, but the reality is that they’re all part of the 42% of the Indian population that is impoverished.[1] As dark as their plight seems at time, however, it might not be entirely hopeless.  During a day trip to the small city of Vadodra in the state of Gujarat, I ran into a mother and daughter team begging for money as I exited a restaurant.  Vadodra has a growing NRI population, many of whom are buying property to serve as vacation or retirement homes.  The poor are cognizant of this trend and have taken advantage of it, positioning themselves at NRI hubs.  As we left the restaurant, it was fairly obvious to the mother and daughter duo that we weren’t locals.  Perhaps it was the polos or the fact that we were drinking diet soda, but whatever the tell, they swarmed us without hesitation.  One of my younger cousins urged us along to the car.  As the driver started backing out, the daughter poked her hand inside my window.  Not wanting to hurt the girl, I handed her my bottle of Diet Pepsi.  She snatched it greedily.  My cousin snapped at me, “You shouldn’t encourage them! They prey on NRIs.”  Rajeev followed my lead and tossed his soft drink to the mother on the other side of the car.  As our cousin continued scolding us, we couldn’t help but crack up laughing.

Why our cousin was so offended by my brother and me gifting two half-finished soda bottles eluded us.  Even she started smirking at the absurdity of the situation.  Glancing out the window at the mother and daughter team as we hurriedly pulled away, I saw that they too found the whole ordeal very amusing and were laughing.  The mother knew that they could have done without the diet sodas.  By their appearance, it was obvious that they didn’t miss many meals.  They were poor, but they weren’t starving and possibly not even homeless.  All of us recognized that begging for money had become a game in India.  The begging mother knew that my Indian cousin would only have rebuked her, and thus, she turned to Rajeev and me instead.  My cousin frowned upon their success because she realized it would soon lead more beggars to patrol that area.  Rajeev and I knew that the girl and woman weren’t completely destitute, but we didn’t want the soda and were leaving India soon enough anyway.  Our collective laughter was just the outburst of knowing we were all complicit in a never-ending game.

The real problem in towns like Vadodra is that the reemergence of NRIs, with the power of non-Indian currency at their disposal, raises the cost of living for the working class.  Acquiescing to appeals for money was just another example of the disturbance of local norms.  Western influence in general is having this tumultuous impact all over India.  The change in socioeconomic behaviors and the interactions between disparate classes is one of the more tangible transformations.

To the poor girl sipping on my soda, Diet Pepsi represented the taste of a better life.  Unaccustomed to the artificial flavor, she probably didn’t even like it.  Still, she understood that this foreign object meant a future different from her present life, and the newfound Indian optimism equates this “different” future with a better one.  This mentality is not limited to the poor.  The information technology industry was a boon to the Indian economy, and growth in other industries rapidly followed.  With a rising gross domestic product, India experienced a surge in its middle class.

The young population can carry the middle class to new heights of affluence.  India’s youth needs only to be wary of disillusionment.   The definition of middle class is changing.  Membership to this class currently grants access to a superficially richer lifestyle in which it is not uncommon to rub elbows with Bollywood stars at nightclubs and parties.  Legacy upper and middle class members who have been supported by the wealth of family businesses and generous patriarchs are mixing with people who are starting their own businesses and working for multinational corporations.  Universal economic growth eventually slows, and certain key industries continue to flourish.  That time might be a while away, but when it comes, it is very possible that not everyone achieves the promise of a better life.  As Western forces and Indian tradition reach equilibrium, it should become more apparent to the youth what the best niches in society are for them.  Until then, confusion remains mixed with optimism as Indians continue finding their identity in the new millennium.


[1] “New Global Poverty Numbers – What It Means for India.” The World Bank, 2005.

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India Now: An Anecdotal Account (Part 3)

It is hard to hyperbolize the influence of Bollywood on Indian society.  Having grown up unabashedly exposed to Bollywood song and dance as the offspring of non resident Indians (NRIs) in the United States, I understood the importance that Indians both at home and abroad placed on their cinematic heroes and heroines.  One Friday night in Mumbai I joined an extended family outing to see 3 Idiots, the newest fillum starring Aamir Khan.  Ever since one of his movies had been nominated for an Academy Award, Aamir Khan had metamorphosed into another one of India’s deities.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s combined stardom pales in comparison to the deference paid to Bollywood superstars.  The only apt Western analogy might be the status rock and roll legends once occupied among their fanatical devotees.

3 Idiots had smashed opening box office records the previous weekend, only intensifying this particular Bollywood experience.  We arrived late to a hissing of shhh’s, but I was quickly engaged by the gigantic 100-foot movie screen.  As the screen engulfed me and the rest of the audience, it was quickly obvious how watching your favorite Bollywood stars talking, singing, and dancing for you every week on a mega screen could become a religious experience.  It was no surprise, then, to hear the audience’s earnest outcry for a dad to vacate the theater when his baby decided to start bawling.  Yet, it was different from the hushing he would have received in an American theater.  There was no forgiveness.  It seemed obvious to the audience that the baby had overstepped its bounds, and such audacity could not be tolerated.  The crowd pleaded its case in cacophonic admonishments until the door closed behind the baby and his frazzled father.

Aamir Khan with a fellow first generation American cousin

It was also expected when audience members looked to each other for support and approval during the funnier moments of the movie.  The biggest laughs came during a scene in which someone with poor command of Hindi had his speech replaced by the protagonist.  The dramatic irony and ensuing sabotaged speech was the pinnacle of the movie for many in the audience.  My cousin’s teenaged son literally fell off the edge of his seat, clapping jubilantly and tearing while he laughed.  The scene had not tickled me in the same way, and when he looked at me for approval, I felt pressured to feign equal enthusiasm to avoid ruining the moment.  Never had my belief that comedy is the hardest human experience to translate been better substantiated.  Consequently, my brother’s chortle from the row behind me and my laugh were the only audible reactions during a darker comedic moment.

Despite not finding the movie as thoroughly entertaining as most of the audience, I enjoyed the experience.  It truly was Broadway, Hollywood, rock and roll, and even a live sporting event all rolled into one.  There was an interval during the movie that acted as a halftime of sorts in which people left their seats to replenish their laps with not only popcorn, but India’s version of hotdogs, cotton candy, ice cream and other ballpark equivalents.

Afterward, the teenagers and twenty-somethings of my family shared a car home.  My cousin Shanky deviated from the usual route.  He seemed in a daze—still transfixed by the cinematic spectacle we just left.  Not waiting for our approval, he took Rajeev and me hostage on the quiet city streets.  The idea of a joy ride seemed so foreign to us.  Watching Shanky smoke his cigarette with his other hand on the wheel, I sensed that he felt liberated on these drives.  It almost seemed on cue when his father called to order him home.  Shanky had the only key back into the apartment, and the rest of the family was waiting.  This time my cousin did not argue, but it was a rare instance of a tension-free exchange between father and son.

*****

One of present day India’s most astounding traits is its youth—half of the Indian population is under the age of 25.[1] India’s juvenescence portends tremendous workforce productivity for many years ahead, but it also carries with it great implications for the country’s cultural fabric.  India prides itself on thousands of years of heritage carried forward through mogul reign, British oppression, and post-revolutionary religious divides.  Never has the contrast between cultural preservation and modernization been more visually evident:  slums, the remnants of an outdated caste system, sit cozily next to rising office parks; women dressed in saris rub shoulders with teenage girls wearing miniskirts in newly opened megamalls; and cows weave casually between imported Japanese sedans.

The friction between modern and traditional values inevitably sparks cultural tensions, threatening family values held at the heart of Indian society.  My uncle (a product of the film industry and a Mumbai culture that promotes everlasting virility) actually sympathizes with his son Shanky about issues that might normally create rifts between people of different generations.  He gets his son’s cravings for clothes with logos, sex, fast cars and bikes, Western media, and nightlife vices.  Yet conflicts arise because, like most Indian sons, my cousin is living in the same household as his parents into adulthood.  This Indian tradition has its merits.  Instead of entrusting daycare to nannies, grandparents can help raise grandchildren.  Children can care for their parents as they get on in years and shield them from the isolation of nursing homes.  The system also provides a financial safety net for young couples, who have no pressure to buy a new home before starting their lives together.

Western influence, however, has instilled a new want for liberation in India’s rapidly expanding youth.  This independence can be difficult to achieve in a small apartment housing three generations of a family.  Nonetheless, single individuals in their 20s who do not yet recognize the benefits of free day care for their future children and the financial savings mentioned previously, are unwilling to sacrifice their freedom.

I found it hard to reconcile with whom I sided when my uncle and cousin fought.  I was bemused that my cousin still had to abide by his father’s rules as an adult and how much it upset my uncle when his twenty-three year old son stayed out late with friends.  I eventually reasoned it did make sense that if my cousin could not support himself independently, he should have to follow his benefactor’s dicta.  One continuing source of conflict involved my uncle’s disapproval of Shanky’s last girlfriend.  While differing religions played a role, the problem stemmed mostly from the fact that Shanky’s girlfriend had previously dated one of his friends before she was intimate with my cousin.  Whether or not this bucked the traditional Indian notions of romance, it occurred to me that my uncle should not have objected too strongly if his son was content with the situation.

Perhaps, sexuality is to remain the cornerstone of cultural tension in India for years to come.  Bollywood films have hesitantly embraced onscreen kissing, but these scenes frequently meet their demise at the censorship board before domestic theatrical release.  Strolling along the popular Mumbai beach spots, Bandra and Bandstand, I saw forbidden lovers scattered across jagged rocks leading down to the water.  These frustrated couples could only venture to meet in precarious places—after all, a girl wearing traditional Muslim garb could not dare kiss a Hindu boy on a street corner.

Modern Indian romance might best be summed up by the story of one of Shanky’s friends.  Ravi, a young man in his 20s, had been with his girlfriend for many years.  While fidelity was not his style, the relationship blossomed.  Unfortunately for Ravi, another guy entered the picture a few years later.  Ravi’s girlfriend told him about the guy and her uncertainties about their own relationship.  Ravi gave her an ultimatum:  forget the other guy and marry him, or their relationship was irrevocably finished.  She decided to try out the new guy.  Within a couple months she was ready to reconcile with her ex beau.  In the interim, however, Ravi’s parents saw an opportunity.  They arranged for him to marry the suitable daughter of a family friend.

Even after dating around for years in the Western sense, this young guy was to have an arranged marriage.  I had a chance to meet the recently betrothed couple.  They seemed happy enough, but Shanky later intimated to me that Ravi and his ex girlfriend had both confided in him that they still loved the other.

*****

Before leaving India, my brother and I wanted a taste of the supposedly debaucherous lifestyle Shanky and his friends were leading.  After an argument between Shanky and his father about his prodigal ways, we hopped into his car and hit the pothole ridden Mumbai roads on a Friday night.  Running late, my cousin floored it to make sure we wouldn’t lose our table reservation.  Traditional traffic was unusually light, but as we approached the first intersection, a bull blocked the narrow path.  The proud animal examined us carefully.  Unperturbed by our sense of hurry and the honking, he paced leisurely for a few minutes before finally deciding to give way.

We were on our way to “the town” and to one of Mumbai’s more exclusive clubs, Prive.  Despite being late, my cousin needed to make a quick pit stop.   Rajeev and I sat patiently at the entrance to some residential building until my cousin ran back with a new set of keys.  We were switching cars, shifting to a roomier SUV with a booming sound system.  This was after all a night out, and my cousin could not roll up to a club in predictable fashion.  Used to partying in New York when in the States, driving and clubbing were mutually exclusive activities in my book, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel that the ostentatious nature of upgrading to a fancier ride wasn’t quite very Indian either.

We pulled up to Prive and passed undersized Indian bouncers into the club.  The glowing club LEDs and strobing dance floor lights flashed to the rhythm of electronic music and a thumping bass.  I felt as if I had been transported to South Beach.  The humidity and congestion of Mumbai had been replaced by the familiar posh, pretentiousness of a Western nightclub.  Sipping on outrageously priced drinks, I stood awkwardly, self-conscious that people somehow knew I didn’t quite belong.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t dancing enthusiastically like many other guys at this early hour.  Indian male flamboyance, I found, had not been checked at the door tonight.  Dance moves were very middle school.  No grinding here.  Instead of being an adult playground, where public sexual foreplay was encouraged, the nightclub scene here was PG.  Skirts were short but did not ride up to reveal taboo parts.  There would be no Britney or Paris flashings for us when everyone stumbled out of the club in a few hours.

Suddenly, cops burst through the club doors to end the night early.  I turned to my cousin to figure out what was going on, but he was busy paying full price for table service that had been cut at least two hours short.  Even later he had no explanation.  The cops could randomly poop the party whenever they wanted.  I realized I was going to be disappointed on my quest for debauchery in India, but we tried one other nightspot before heading back to the suburbs of Mumbai.

"Om, Shaanti, Om!"

On the drive back we stopped by the beach.  The smokers lit their cigarettes, and the rest of us sat on rocks overlooking the waves.  I threw a pebble into the abyss and turned around to see my cousin doing a handstand.  The guys, though sober, were running around putting each other in headlocks.  The only person in this group that had imbibed past his limits was actually from Singapore.  Having to catch a flight back in the morning, he was no longer with us, but he serenaded us to the tunes of the Indian classic, “Om, Shaanti, Om,” before heading off.  Back at the roadside, Shanky handed a friend the keys to our car so that he could get into the other one.  I did not understand why until we hit the road again.  As we got onto Mumbai’s newest cable-stayed bridge, I looked out the front windshield to see my cousin sticking his torso out through the sunroof of the car in front of us while Jay Sean’s Down blasted on our speakers.  He waved his arms and screamed into the night air.  He carried on wildly for the length of the bridge before switching back to our car.

Although he was my contemporary, I didn’t quite get my cousin.  We were comfortable in each other’s presence but never seemed to connect on a meaningful level.  This last display of exuberance, while somewhat contrived and Bollywoodesque, had a youthful innocence to it almost from another era.  And at that moment while I knew I could not live the Indian experience, I was happy to get a glimpse of this optimistic time in my cousin’s and the country’s lives.


[1] “The Rising Elephant.” PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2005.

India Now: An Anecdotal Account (Part 2)

Jai Mata Di.  With those words in the darkness before dawn, we began a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi in northern India to worship the Hindu goddess Mata Rani.  My extended family and I were journeying from Mumbai to the state of Jammu and Kashmir by train, which was to take thirty hours.  We approached Bandra station in Mumbai as the first signs of day peaked over the horizon.  I knew we were close when greeted by the station’s infamous calling card, the rank smell of sewage.

While planning this trip, there had been great debate among my relatives about two pressing matters:  first, the food each participating family would bring along (because once we got sick of the company, we could eat and get sick to our stomachs), and secondly, whether to book the 2 Tier first class cabin or the 3 Tier.  As far as the latter was concerned, the only apparent difference was that a 2 Tier cabin consisted of two sleeping bunks per wall versus three bunks in a 3 Tier.  We had opted for two bunks per wall, and when the day of the trip finally arrived, everyone was eager to jump into the much exalted 2 Tier train car.  Having seen The Darjeeling Limited and Slumdog Millionaire over the past year, I might have prematurely romanticized my expectations for Indian train travel.  My heart sank the second I climbed into our box.  While I could potentially forgive the rust encrusted walls and muddy bathrooms, the fact that the “tinted” windows (which in reality were poorly maintained windows stained by dirt) precluded any sightseeing of the Indian countryside was a bit much to handle.

Nevertheless, thirty-four and a half hours, eight meals, one sleepless night, and five too many bathroom visits later we reached Jammu.

Our ascent up the mountain upon which Vaishno Devi rests began from a small village called Katra.  We stayed in the village the previous night, and were it not for the damp sheets at the hotel, which the staff insisted were not wet but rather only cold, the visit might have earned a Trip Advisor four star review.  We started our thirteen kilometer uphill trek slowly.  Having overeaten throughout the train ride, the walk and exercise was refreshing.  It also provided a rare occasion to praise India’s infrastructure.  The pathway up the mountain was narrow but for the most part felt safe.  Certain devotees opted to take horses and donkeys up and down the mountain, and when those animals thundered up and down the path, we did have to avoid getting bumped over the edge.  Still, I felt grateful for the pathway when I noticed the remnants of the original perilous stone steps pilgrims used to climb.

As a Hindu, it did not surprise me to see just how dedicated worshippers were to make it to the top.  To outsiders Hindu zeal might at times seem borderline superstitious.  Even that day one of my cousins, always ahead of the pack, was making the entire climb barefoot to fulfill a promise he had made to the goddess.  To my right I saw a six-year-old boy on his father’s shoulders leading a religious chant even as they descended after their pilgrimage was complete.  Just behind me another of my older cousins was out of breath, but he panted “Jai Mata Di” incessantly to strengthen his resolve.  He was careful not to offend the goddess on this trip.  During his previous visit he was very vocal about his discontent when he realized that after climbing thirteen kilometers for Mata Rani, her cave only housed three symbolic stones.  Shortly thereafter, he fell gravely ill just a few yards into the return descent.  Already teetering on the edge of sickness throughout my stay in India, I donned a sunny disposition.

About five hours later we hit kilometer checkpoint eleven at an hour in which the sun’s disappearing light blurred the outlines of nearby objects in contrast with the sharp mountain peaks in the distance.  We rounded a bend and started up an unusually steep fifty yard stretch.  Striding up the gravel path, my line of sight cleared the top of the small hill, and I received my first glimpse of the cave and the mini village that now housed Mata Rani’s presence.  It was a good moment.  I thought about how often we forget good moments, but I promised myself to remember this one.  A sense of serenity washed over me, and I felt more alive than I had in weeks.

The rest of our visit was relatively uneventful but chock full of monkeys stealing our food, security officers taking my cousin’s inhalers but not finding mine, unheated hotel rooms, and my cousin’s husband’s toe getting nicked by a horse’s hoof.  The travel back to Mumbai, on the other hand, proved to be quite harrowing.

With a collective feeling that perhaps the grimy train compartment, freezing hotel rooms, and lingering stomachaches and colds were worth the successful pilgrimage after all, we waited for our flight from Jammu to Mumbai.  Mata Rani, however, decided to test our faith for just a while longer.  Fog at the connecting airport in New Delhi had delayed all the flights heading south from Jammu, except for one airline.  This airline, our airline, instead decided that it would cancel all its flights and refund tickets.  We would later find out that the cancellation was likely caused by staffing problems, but because the inclement conditions served as a credible scapegoat, the airline did not help us find a way home.  All other flights and trains were booked for the next two days, and given that only one week remained in our visit to India, staying in Jammu was not an appealing option.  Thus, we embarked yet again on another Indian travel experience that will forever be burned to memory.  Jai Mata Di.

*****

My uncle hired a driver, and the nine of us from the original nineteen who were left stranded packed into a rickety van.  To travel the 600 kilometers from Jammu to New Delhi we settled in for what we figured would be an eight to ten hour ride.  Agitated with the circumstances, Rajeev and a few others dozed off immediately, and the rest of us tried to make light of the situation.  Any hope for levity, however, was dashed an hour into the return trip when the driver decided to take a chai break.  We sipped and snacked away for about fifteen minutes until realizing we had no clue where the driver had disappeared.  A couple of the men from the group went on a search and returned with the driver several minutes later, poorly hiding their consternation.  My eavesdropping nine-year-old cousin ran back to inform us that the dispatcher/middleman who arranged our taxi had in fact taken a much larger cut out of the driver’s fare than customary.

The driver reluctantly sat back at the wheel once we reassured him we would not stiff him on the remainder of his fare.  My uncle also suggested that he could call the middleman in Jammu to ask for a partial refund and return it to the driver.  Seemingly appeased, the driver started the engine, but before continuing forward he suggested that my uncle accuse the dispatcher of wrongfully pocketing even more money than he actually had.  This way, the driver reasoned, he could collect an even higher fare and could also cut my uncle in for a few rupees.

In many ways, the driver’s retaliatory scheme exemplified the dark underbelly of Indian society’s mindset.  Corruption is only met with more corruption.  Even on the train ride to Jammu, the TC (train conductor) tried to entice us to enter into a shady transaction.  We had paid for nineteen bunks, but the nineteenth person in our party was not to join us until three-fourths of the way into the trip.  The TC insisted on letting standby passengers occupy the bunk so that he could make a few extra rupees in bribes from those passengers.  We would have been glad to let those people take the seat for free until our 19th boarded, but the problem with the cycle of corruption is that we later would have had to bribe those passengers and/or the TC to get the bunk back.  My twenty-three year old cousin, endearingly nicknamed Shanky, once summed up the general Indian state of mind when he rationalized, “If I saw a goat (an innocent mark or victim) on the street, wouldn’t I obviously take him for as much as I could get?”  People in India are generally great, but when it comes to money, they often exhibit hyper capitalistic tendencies.

The next few hours of the drive until nightfall passed more smoothly but very slowly.  While Punjab’s interstate roads exceeded my expectations, they were not the five lane interstate highways I was used to cruising at home.  To add just a tinge of peril, as dusk enveloped the country side, so did the region’s notorious fog.  The two lane highway was soon cutting through dense forests, and the fog settled in densely between the trees lining either side of the road.  The driver had already slowed down to thirty-five kilometers per hour when the road turned into a one lane path with a serious traffic jam.

Having only covered 150 kilometers, we were already five hours into the trip and found ourselves in the middle of a jungle.  When Indian infrastructure receives criticism, it is because of these nightmare scenarios.  Our flight from New Delhi to Bombay was scheduled for 7:30 AM the next day, and with three-fourths of the journey left, it was already 9:00 PM.  We had trouble making up time even on decent highways because of the fog.  While fog was admittedly out of government control, this natural hazard was a recurring problem on a route frequently used by freight truckers, and the government could have deployed roadside reflectors and streetlights to help ameliorate the issue.

My cousin’s husband decided to scout out the source of the traffic jam to no avail.  He just shrugged and decided such things were to be expected in India.  We were at a standstill for a half hour.  Initially, we had joked about ghosts or bandits jumping out of the bush to our right, but the van gradually grew quiet as those stories took hold of the deeper recesses of our thoughts.  This patch of road wasn’t a particularly safe area.  Two men on motorcycles interrupted the silence then as they tapped on the driver’s window.

They encouraged the driver to take the narrow dirt trail to the left as a detour.  Without the possession of GPS or local familiarity we kindly declined.  The motorcyclists seemed very disappointed that we balked at their suggestion and zoomed away on their bikes down the path.  I tried to follow their fading silhouettes with my eyes until another knock at the driver’s window distracted me.  This time it was the truck driver stuck in traffic behind us.  He also tried to convince us of the merits of this side trail.  When our driver replied with a Punjabi idiom that he didn’t want to take any ‘raw’ roads, the trucker argued that the road was ‘fully cooked.’

We continued to wait with quickly sinking stomachs.  After a few minutes, a couple of cars ahead of us turned their engines back on and veered off onto the much hyped detour path.  Before taking our van forward, the driver turned to my uncle.  My uncle confidently directed the driver to follow the cars down the side path because we had to make up time if we planned to catch our flight.

As our van set off down the dirt path, I kept a watchful eye out the back window to see if the trucker who had advocated this suspicious road was following.  At first I was relieved to discover that he was staying put, but then it occurred to me that he might have been in cahoots with the first two motorcyclists who had since disappeared.  After all, we were probably an easy target with luggage nearly toppling over the sides of the van roof.  I found myself slightly less unnerved when we caught up to the two cars that had led the way down the sketchy path.  Both cars cleared over the railroad crossing directly ahead of us.  As our van approached the tracks, however, the warning bell rang, and the wooden barrier wedged itself between the tracks and us.

The temptation to run through the light and siren to the other side of the tracks was high.  We could not make out if there was anyone manning the booth on the other side, from which government transportation employees manually control the railroad track barrier.  Yet, it seemed too risky even to wager the few seconds it would take to cross the tracks.  India’s railway system is probably one of the deadliest in the world.  Accidents due to compartment overcrowding and poor traffic signaling were absurdly common.  Knowing that 17 people die per weekday on the suburban trains of Mumbai, one could only guess the dangerous unpredictability of these regional trains.[1] Within a few minutes, our window to cross over the tracks closed as a singular train light glimmered in the distance.

As I turned my eyes to the rear of the van, I saw two pale headlights steadily approaching.  They ran parallel at a fixed distance before suddenly splitting further apart and then weaving again to be completely adjacent.  Although the source of the lights was not easily distinguishable, it was clear that they belonged to a pair of two-wheeled vehicles.  Our collective anxiety was palpable as we tried ignoring the two tailing lights and listened to the rhythmic clanking of the train against the rusted tracks.  In a few moments the train finally cleared our path, and the wooden barrier creaked open.  Without looking back, the driver jolted forward.  The detour proved to be efficient, and we returned to the main highway in just a few minutes.  As heart rates settled and breaths were caught, my ostensibly confident uncle admitted that he had been discreetly searching for some sort of weapon and had clutched two screwdrivers at his feet.

Whether actual or conjured in our minds, the preceding drama took its toll, and most of us started dozing in and out.  I, too, closed my eyes and was awakened a couple of hours later by my gurgling stomach.  As I came to consciousness, a neon light shone through the dense fog.  We were still in the middle of a jungle as far as I could tell and had not come across any presentable rest stops or restaurants in hours.  No wonder I couldn’t help but smile when the familiar beacon finally became visible ahead.  Along the most isolated of roads stood a comforting sight:  the golden arch of McDonald’s.  With no hesitation we had the driver stop as we indulged in the luxuries of clean bathrooms and processed food.

*****

We did eventually make our flight out of New Delhi, but as we had expected by then, the travel was laden with inconveniences.  The fog did not let up throughout the night.  Hours behind pace, the inexperienced driver would not push the car past 60 kilometers per hour, prompting my uncle to ask for the wheel.  When the driver refused, my uncle mushed him along for the remaining duration.  Once in Delhi, the driver refused to stop for a couple of policemen randomly searching cars near the airport.  Instead, he accelerated right over one officer’s foot.  We gasped as he floored it toward the airport.  I was baffled when the police did not give chase.  The police in India are easily bribed, and people can almost always avoid tickets.  Not to pursue someone who drives over an officer’s foot, however, seemed too apathetic even for India.  Finally, we made our flight but only because it was delayed by an hour due to fog.  As we boarded the plane, I exhaled, “Jai Mata Di.”


[1] Blakeley, Rhys. “India’s Rail Authorities Crack Down on Rooftop Travel to Stop Deaths.” Times Online, Feb 18, 2010.

India Now: An Anecdotal Account (Part 1)

I made a trip to India last December (2009) and visited for 3 weeks into the new year (2010).  This is my account covering the spectrum of life in India. It is divided into 5 parts.  Here’s part 1:

After fifteen hours we finally descended over Mumbai.  As I peered into the darkness outside, I noticed that the night was undisturbed by the light pollution one would expect from a major city.  As soon as we hit the tarmac, a distinct foreign smell permeated the airplane cabin.  Even ten years later it was impossible not to recognize that Indian scent that might be described as a potpourri of concrete rubble, dust, cow manure and some mystery masala.  Nervous to meet my relatives again and use Indian bathrooms, I was both suffocated and reassured by the smell.

I was surprised by the blinding fluorescent lights as I disembarked from the ramp into the airport.  As my mom and younger brother, Rajeev, walked ahead to the duty free shops, I ran to the bathroom for what I thought would be the first of many harrowing visits during the next three weeks.  Proper urinals, albeit a bit low to the ground, startled me upon entry.  A few minutes later I ran to catch up while taking in the commercial vivacity of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, which seemed more like a Western shopping mall at midnight than a portal to a developing foreign country.  Chanel No. 5 for 20% off to my right, and two bottles of The Glenlivet for $58 to my left.  Not bad.  I caught up with my family and after a quick baggage mix-up we went through one last security checkpoint.

We dumped our bags on the conveyor belt and waited.  I turned to my mom and smiled, “India is a lot different from what I remember.”  One of the porters at security interjected and asked about the three bottles of whiskey we had purchased from duty free.  He grabbed my arm and asked me for ten dollars.  Explaining that we were permitted four bottles between the two of-age adults, I picked up my bags and moved forward.  Feeling a hand clutch my elbow again, I turned to hear the porter begging me to have a heart and to give him some cash.  Brushing his arm away I pushed toward ground transportation.  In my periphery I could see my mom smirking.  I lamented, “I guess some things don’t change.”

*****

The steady hum of traffic rose to our second story flat in the mornings.  As comforting as the sound of the outside world continuously bustling about in the background was, driving through that same traffic was disproportionately more frustrating.  Traveling ten kilometers routinely took an hour in Mumbai traffic.  In a country of a billion people it wasn’t shocking to see fifty pedestrians for every vehicle as they played a ceaseless game of Frogger, dodging double decker buses and weaving through the anarchy of streets without driving lanes.  But even in the presence of buses and monstrous trucks, the true kings of the Indian roadways were the auto-rickshaws.

Swarming through the streets equipped with buzzing engines and blaring cricket-like horns, the black and yellow pests seemed to have multiplied since my last visit.  Despite their dominance, the three-wheel, three-seater autos were harmless and could easily be flipped over onto their sides by a grown man.  My 165 pound frame nearly tipped one over the first time I stepped out of an auto.  They were no more than Vespas with tarp coverings.  Yet, in the United States motorcycles and scooters are forced to criss-cross through highways of sedans.  In India it is the cars that have to maneuver through a grid of autos, which Physics 101 would suggest poses a problem.

Sitting in traffic, I spruced up on my Hindi by reading decals on the backs of autos:  “Rama,” “Mera Bharat Mahan,” and “Capacity: 3 Idiots.”  Reading that last one, which referred to a recently released Bollywood film, I thought American advertisers could learn a few lessons about viral advertising from this place.  My gaze drifted from the traffic to the local businesses.  Impressive malls had sprung up everywhere during the past ten years, but the majority of commercial property was still hole-in-the-wall stores and shacks lining the roadsides.  As I stared out the window at a store called Alpha, which sold everything from eyeglass frames to diapers to potato chips but with 1/100th the retail space of the average Wal-Mart, a large moving gray mass blocked my view.  After a moment, it dawned on me that this was an elephant in full stride alongside heavy traffic.  Still disoriented, it took me a few more seconds to realize that what I thought was someone hosing down the sidewalk was actually the same elephant relieving himself, forcing me to reconsider the idiom, “piss like a racehorse.”

As the elephant thudded away, my eyes returned to Alpha.  I had wondered why stores like Wal-Mart did not take advantage of India’s rising middle class, but I began to see why the infrastructure might make it difficult.  Having traveled between major cities on India’s national highways, I saw firsthand that the majority of India was still occupied by villages and farmland.  India’s suburbs were housed within its congested metropolitan areas.  Unlike New York City’s outer boroughs, Mumbai’s suburbs were actually more congested than the financial and commercial centers.  In fact, downtown Mumbai is full of open stretches of pavement and void of the nuisance (and convenience) of autos.  The traffic and congestion make Wal-Mart like superstores hard to build in locations accessible to the suburban middle class.

As a foreigner with purchasing power, I was gladly willing to risk my life crossing the road to buy a Coke rather than hop in a car to find discount soda at a supermarket.  However, even locals who still value every rupee saved seemed to prefer the local economy that dominates India.  They enjoyed buying produce from the guy ceaselessly cuckooing, “Bhaji-wala!” in the early mornings.  The number of vendors that sold door-to-door had significantly decreased since my last visit, but it was still just as easy to make a call to any specialty store downstairs and have goods delivered.  Proximity explains why 97% of Indian retail is mom and pop stores, and this lifestyle has its advantages. [1] Renewing your license at India’s version of the DMV—a man sitting at a wicker table under a tarp propped up by bamboo sticks—was not nearly as tedious as a DMV visit in the United States.  Still, I found myself willing to forfeit an hour of my life every so often to the curmudgeons of my town’s DMV for the other day-to-day conveniences to which I had grown accustomed in the western world.


[1] “The Rising Elephant.” PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2005.